Dorothy Sayers III
Bill Long 7/17/08
Language in Clouds of Witness (1926)
After my sheer delight at discovering ipecacuanha on p. 97 of Clouds of Witness, I seriously entertained just putting down the book, since I wasn't really that interested in which upper-class Britisher might have bumped off another one at the Riddlesdale Lodge. But I realized that I had made some notes in the first 97 pages on some words/phrases used by Sayers that made me laugh or wonder what was meant. So, I offer those to you here. In a sense I am building on the discussion in the previous essay where phrases like "Elliman's embrocation" and "Kruschen feelings" appear. In fact, I don't plan to finish the book, but I do want to "finish" with the following words and definitions....
Exciting the Risibilities
No, Sayers doesn't use this phrase, a phrase attested in such diverse American authors as the Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She does use others, however, that make us laugh. For example, she uses "knocked up" and "get off" in unexpected ways. One example of each should suffice. When the coroner was conducting his inquest into the death of Denis Cathcart, he called as witnesses various guests at Riddlesdale Lodge on the fateful night. One of them was the Hon. Frederick Arbuthnot. Since the murder of Cathcart happened in the middle of the night, some people had to be awakened to learn about it. Arbuthnot was one of them, and Cathcart's fiance, Mary, roused him. Here is the questioning (p. 20):
"CORONER: Did you hear anything further that night?
HON. FREDERICK: Not till poor little Mary knocked me up."
I'll bet. While we are on the subject of getting knocked up, we turn to the testimony of Mrs. Pettigrew-Robinson, who went up to bed around 9:30 p.m. (Denis' body was discovered around 3:00 a.m.). We are told that Mrs. P-R was a heavy sleeper at the beginning of the night and a light sleeper in the early morning. Well, the commotion in the house at about 10:00 p.m. hurt her ability to get to sleep. Now we pick up the text:
"She had been annoyed by all the disturbance in the house that evening, as it had prevented her from getting off," (p. 22).
It is so angering, isn't it, to have noise when your trying to get off?
More Seriously Now
On p. 9 we are told that the body of Cathcart was found at 3:00 a.m. just outside the conservatory door of the Duke of Denver's shooting-box, Riddlesdale Lodge. I wasn't familiar with the term, but the OED helpfully says that a "box" is also "a small country-house; a residence for temporary use while following a particular sport, as a..shooting-box." But the "small" country-house in Clouds of Witness was two stories and had at least six bedrooms upstairs. Here is a picture of one from the Net--which is indeed smaller than six bedrooms.
On p. 24 we have a description of the deceased man, Denis Cathcart. "Deceased, when he saw him, was in dinner-jacket and pumps, without hat or overcoat." Pumps?? What is he, a cross-dresser? Well, today we think of pumps as women's shoes with heels, but originally (going back to 1555), pumps were "a light, usually heelless or low-heeled shoe, originally often of delicate material and color, having no fastening but kept on the foot by its close fit" (ah, maybe that is the connection...), such as a slipper for indoor wear or a more substantial but light, low-heeled shoe popular among dancers, couriers, acrobats, duellists, and others requiring freedom of movement." As such they were generally worn by men. Phew! I was hoping Dorothy Sayers wasn't going to explore themes of sexuality among the British upper classes!
She has a felicitous sentence on p. 28 that doesn't implicate unusual terms but is interesting nevertheless. She is speaking of Sunday breakfast, incomparably the worst of the week.
"The party gathered about the breakfast-table at Riddlesdale Lodge held, if one might judge from their faces, no brief for that day miscalled of sweet refection and holy love."
Would it also be right to say "called of sweet refection..."? That is, the day can be referred to in either way, though the faces of those gathered belied a pleasant association with that day.
On p. 31, while discussing going to church, we have the following: "I mean to say, those bounders about here are all Socialists and Methodists," and a few lines below, "O, don't you mind me, Mrs. P...All I say is, if these blighters make things unpleasant, don't blame me." A blighter, going back to 1896, is a "contemptible or unpleasant person; often merely as an extravagant substitute for 'fellow.'" A bounder, going back to 1889, is "a person of objectional manners or anti-social behavior; a cad. Also in milder use as a term of playful abuse." What is it with the late Victorian period? I thought the world was nice, neat and organized then, but now I am learning that it was made so by inventing words for the "lower" people. Give me disorder any day over that...
On p. 33, Lord Peter Wimsey says he will go visit his relative Gerald (the Duke of Denver, accused of the murder) "in quod." The OED suggests that its origin, though uncertain, may be from a shortened form of quadrangle, and it means "a prison, the state of imprisonment." Wraxall's translation of Les Miserables from the 1870s has this, "Do you know I have been in quod for a fortnight?"
A Villar y Villar (p. 60) was one of the two leading brands of Havana Cigars (the "Henry Clay" was the other) at the turn of the 20th century. We have reference to Caxton's Confessio Amantis on p. 63, and that was a new one for me. Actually, this web site talks about a sale of the library of Robert Hoe, in which is a copy of the first edition of John Gower's "Confessio Amantis," printed by William Caxton in his shop at Westminster in 1483. As this article says, Gower's "Confessio" ("The Lover's Confession") is a 33,000 line Middle English poem which uses the confession made by an aging lover to the chaplain of Venus as a frame story for a collection of shorter narrative poems. At 33,000 lines it is about three times the length of Paradise Lost. An easy read, no doubt.
Then there is a reference to a fat man smoking by the "inglenook" of a fireplace (p. 74), which is either a small corner formed next to an open fireplace or the entire recessed space formed by a fireplace. Then, on p. 76 comes a reference to a "malacca cane," which is a rich brown, often clouded or mottled, walking stick made from the stem of any of several Malaysian palms. This web site, which gives some pictures of the canes, says that early in the 20th century, the Malacca cane was known as the "king of canes." Finally, on p. 94 is a word that doesn't appear in any dictionary, but appears to be a unique word to Sayers: bompstable. Here is the sentence:
"You said 'The glass-blower's cat is bompstable,'" retorted Lord Peter. "It's a perfectly rippin' word, but I don't know what you mean by it."
I don't think any clarity was forthcoming.
This covers a little less than half the book. If I were interested in detective stories, I would plow ahead. But I have done my penance for missing ipecacuanha, and I have learned a whole lot of other interesting words and phrases. I hope you concur...